I was steaming milk for a latte when my course advisor walked in, the professor who helped me choose English and writing classes against the faint objections of the outside world (You’ll never get a job with that!).
I wanted to hide. I wanted to assure him that this – me in my flour-dusted apron, sweeping floors, taking orders – was just temporary. I wanted to explain about the job that I would start in a few weeks, the one that would take me overseas to study and write just like I had dreamed. This isn’t what it looks like. This isn’t what you think.
It was the same defensiveness I felt that summer I was a hotel maid in a national park. With my housekeeping cart and uniform pants, I felt invisible. When people spoke to me at all, they spoke maddeningly slowly, enunciating their demands and not waiting to hear my reply. I felt demeaned and belittled. My instinctive response was to want to clarify. I am in college! As if there was something to be embarrassed about, working a minimum wage job. As if being in school should exempt me from that embarrassment.
Both behind the bakery counter and behind my housekeeping cart, my indignant reactions to the rudest patrons was an unconscious telegraphing, vague and ugly, of Don’t you see, I’m one of you. I am not one of them.
And there it is: “them,” the most dangerous word in the English language. “Them,” that ill-defined, amorphous signifier used in justifications and explanations, in political rhetoric and guarded social commentary.
But who exactly are those people I wanted to distance myself from, those people I couldn’t bear to be confused with? There is a dangerous belief that people who are smart or hard-working or good shouldn’t have to work in coffee shops, shouldn’t have to kneel in hotel bathrooms, scrubbing toilet basins. Though I’ve worked minimum wage jobs my whole life, some part of me still believed this.
But this assumption did not take into account all my networks of support and encouragement, the whirring cogs of privilege that enable me to travel to another country to work for no pay at a job I’ve always dreamed of, to allow this job be only temporary for me.
Wherever I go in life, I want to remember that I am no different, no better, no more deserving regardless of what side of the cash register I find myself.
This season of my life is not wasted and I am not wasted on it. I’ll leave with skills I never picked up in college: one coworker’s easy banter with customers, another’s calm in the face of chaos. But even more, I’ll leave with better understanding of the sting of condescension, the weariness of long shifts on my feet that so many people have no choice to leave.
Let me be a punchline, a barista with an English major, if it means that I am ever after kinder, more understanding, and more aware that with human beings there is no “us” and “them.”